“You are being far too Anglo-Saxon, Fran” said Gianni, his strong accent giving my name a second syllable: ‘Fran-ne’. With a sardonic smile he pressed his hands together and wagged them up and down in the unmistakably Italian gesture that indicates amused disbelief.
“What do you mean: Anglo-Saxon?” I asked, frowning slightly. It was Gianni’s twice weekly English lesson with me, and he had been telling me about a major strategic decision he had been involved in making at work. He was the marketing manager of the medium-sized manufacturing company where I had secured my first teaching gig, and we were discussing the new corporate strategy that the management team had been developing over the preceding months: he was a competent if rusty speaker of English. I had just asked “What kind of decision-making tools did you use?” His pale blue eyes had narrowed behind his thick yet bang-on-trend glasses as he set about formulating his answer. “Did you use any market research data, for example?”, I had prompted. His response had been a single raised eyebrow. “How about focus groups? Or a cost-benefit analysis?” His other eyebrow had joined the first as he had run his fingers through his thinning yet unruly, almost black hair.
“You must remember that we Italians are not so rational as you Anglo-Saxons”, he continued. “We Italians do not concern ourselves with such tools as these!” He grinned and I smiled at his self-mocking tone. Warming to his theme, he rolled his chair back from the desk and sprang to his feet. “Here in the Mediterranean we just open the windows…” – he flung his arms wide – “… and we smell the air…” he inhaled theatrically – “This is how we make decisions in Italy!”
This conversation came back to me when I nipped (ha!) to the supermarket for some bread for lunch the other day. Luckily (and unusually) there was only one person in front of me in the queue: I was going to be in and out in record time. Just as well, too, as I had a ‘to do’ list as long as my arm to get through that afternoon. But no. In making her selection, the woman in front of me – a working mum, judging by the contents of her trolley and her smart dress and impossibly high heels – asked the assistant to show her one loaf after another, each of which was rejected for one reason or another: too pale, too golden, too crusty, too soft, too round, too long… She could have given Goldilocks a run for her money.
As I waited to for her to find a loaf that was just right (and also to catch up on a bit of local gossip, of course) it dawned on me that Gianni had done much more than simply make me laugh in that lesson a few months earlier. I realised that he had actually given me a penetrating insight into the source – not to mention the utter futility – of my frequent frustration with the way things are done in Italy. More tellingly, though, he had also revealed my own arrogance to me. After all, who the hell do I think I am, expecting people here to behave as I would, getting cross when things don’t happen as they would in the UK? What entitles me to pass judgement on the ways of the country I have freely chosen to move to? Worse still, what kind of ghastly desk-stabbing, Union Jack-waving expat (the very worst kind, in my book) was I at risk of becoming?
But there was something else too. Wasn’t the constant pressure to get things done one of the things I had most wanted to put behind me? Wasn’t constantly chasing deadlines one of the things that had left me stressed and anxious, and permanently wracked with feelings of inadequacy and under-achievement? Wasn’t one of the main attractions of moving to Italy in the first place the improved quality of life – a life led at a kinder pace; one that made room for people, not just productivity; for ‘being’, not just ‘doing’? So what on earth was I doing trying to maintain these destructive habits not only when I did not need to, but also when they actually went against the cultural grain of my adoptive home?
I stopped pointedly looking at my watch and shuffling impatiently. Then, when I was given the signal that it was my turn – “Di mi” – “tell me” – Instead of asking for the first thing my eye fell on, I enquired about the ciabatta rolls. And then about the granary ones. But in the end, I opted for a large chunk of Pugliese (a bread from Puglia with a distinct yellowy tinge thanks to the maize it contains). Then, when I got home, I decided that I wasn’t ‘late’, and following a longer than usual lunch break (the Pugliese had proved very moreish), I set about tackling my ‘to do’ list. As it turned out, several tasks on it could wait until later in the week, which allowed me to knock off early. So I poured a couple of glasses of chilled Verdicchio and filled a bowl of olives which Mr Blue-Shirt and I enjoyed in our favourite spot in the fruit grove that looks straight down the valley to the sea beyond.
So now, whenever I’m tempted to roll my eyes when the assistant in the supermarket has a five minute chat with every single customer, or to tut and cuss when the driver in front overtakes on a blind bend (without indicating, obviously), or to keep checking my watch if a student is as much as a minute late for a lesson, or to heave a sigh when I am yet again required to present ‘i documenti’ and fill in a form (probably in triplicate) in order to obtain something as trivial as a supermarket loyalty card, I simply take a breath, smile, and recall Gianni’s observation: you are being far too Anglo-Saxon, Fran.